By Tom Woodman
For an inspirational speaker this guy was sounding like a downer.
Climate change is more advanced than predicted just a few years ago.
We are already seeing irreversible environmental effects from global warming.
The United States remains dangerously dependent on fossil fuels even as energy companies resort to more expensive and environmentally risky technology.
An engaging young man with a warm speaking style, Dominic Frongillo nonetheless seemed intent on depressing his audience.
But, of course, that wasn’t his goal. At twenty-eight years old, Frongillo has become a leader in the environmental movement and has three times been the U.S. youth delegate to the United Nations climate negotiations, first in Bali, followed by Copenhagen, then Cancun. He had come to the Wild Center in Tupper Lake to charge up the third annual Adirondack Youth Climate Summit.
His narrative of seeming despair was really just laying the groundwork for challenging the room to act. And the listeners, high school and college students from across northern New York, were eager to embark on the quest—or as Frongillo referred to it, the hero’s journey.
There was more than one apparent paradox at this November’s summit. The pessimism of Frongillo’s early speech gave way to a stirring call to activism. He extolled a gathering that surrounded the White House in protest against the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that would carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to Texas and praised demonstrations that temporarily closed coal plants.
Also paradoxical, perhaps, were the strategies that the youth would embrace to do their part in a global challenge—modest, down-home tactics for greening their own schools: classroom recycling; composting and waste reduction in cafeterias; planting trees on campus. They adopted the credo: “Here’s what I can do with what I have and where I am.”
(Also a little incongruous to a couple of us old folks in the audience was the idea of teaching activism in something resembling a school assembly. For those who remember the sixties, the idea of schools dispatching teams of students and faculty to a conference on how to become activists may seem odd—but possibly an improvement.)
With nearly two hundred participants from seven colleges and twenty high schools, the youth summit is a mix of high-energy idealism and practical wisdom. Students who had taken part in previous summits spoke of common lessons they learned when trying to put their ideas to work. One was: you can craft wise and effective conservation plans but you’re going nowhere without the support of the people you need to make them happen. For the environmental club of Troy High School, success came when they won over the administration to a recycling campaign and once the school’s Life Skills students took responsibility for running the classroom program.
Troy senior Preston Pearce drew strength from Frongillo’s talk.Senior Preston Pearce explains Troy High School’s recycling program. Photo by Tom Woodman
“It opened up my eyes. It was like I’m not alone in trying to make the world a better place. It’s a whole worldwide movement that’s trying to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. At home, he doesn’t see that many people thinking about these issues, though the environmental club has been growing in numbers and influence.
That was a common theme among the students. At their schools, they feel like they’re part of a small group thinking about climate change, a minority among the large population of students pursuing different interests.
Saranac Lake Junior Leah DeTar, a veteran of all three youth summits, said that the big challenge is to fight the indifference she sees around her.
“There’s like this haze of apathy and melancholy,” she said.
But she tied a sense of being a little isolated to the theme of the hero’s journey. Her class had recently studied these epic tales.
“They talk about the separation from a culture, which we can feel now because we are sort of isolated in a way. And you go through an abyss, which is the really hard time and that’s where you can conquer the shadow self or the beast, which I guess is like the fossil fuels, the horrors on our planet. Then you come back up and you return and it’s this glorious journey and you’re not the same again.”
The climate summits she’s attended at the Wild Center gave her the inspiration and energy to start this journey.
“It was like this movement that I’d never really seen before,” she said. “Something that I’d never really been a part of as youth. There are lots of climate conferences, but I’d never seen anything like this one. It’s my generation getting so excited about something. It makes it so much different because they’re all your age and you feel like you can do something instead of feeling like you’re so incapable.”
But given the array of problems, does she think her generation can succeed? What will the world be like in twenty or thirty years?
“I would really love to try to be as optimistic as possible. I really say we’re at sort of a turning point. We have to make the decision to do it. We can’t just let it be. You have to take action.
“We’re in the middle of a dying culture and one that’s going to be reborn. It’s uplifting and so empowering.”